The Piper’s Grip for Irish Simple System Flute Players
I get quite a lot of emails and phone calls regarding the Irish flute and the difficulty classical flute players and indeed former whistle or recorder players have when it comes to the large Pratten-style keyless Irish flutes I sell.
Many of the enquiries come from petite-handed flute players who find the extension needed in their fingers can be too great or the angle is awkward and painful for their fingers and wrists. No two cases are ever alike but what I will always initially advise people who are having trouble using the classical grip on any of my simple system Irish flutes is to try out the so-called ‘Piper’s Grip’.
Named after the way pipers would hold their chanters and more recently the way whistle players grip the low whistle, the Piper’s Grip might be just the solution for those players who are having difficulty with the physicality of the Irish flute. This applies to both my beginner Irish flutes and my more advanced Irish flutes. I use a grip version somewhere between the classical grip and the piper’s grip myself when playing the flute as it’s the way I was taught.
So how does the piper’s grip work and how does it help smaller handed flute players? Well it allows the player to cover the tone holes in the flute with minimal effort and does not contort the fingers in doing so. Musicians trained in the classical style will definitely find this grip awkward and will miss the control that the classical grip brings, however it is indeed possible to become comfortable with this style of fingering and may enable petite players to take on the big Irish session flute something which may have eluded them before.
Take a look at the first diagram. I’ve marked with red the part of the finger that should cover the tone hole on the first three fingers of the right hand. Try it out and manoeuver to suit your hands until you’re comfortable and the tone holes are properly covered.
Similarly, this grip also applies to the left hand as well.
In the second image you’ll see a sort of bird’s eye view of which part of the fingers should be covering the tone holes. Please note this diagram is just for simple finger placement purposes, the angle of the hand is not necessarily accurate.
You can also try a hybrid piper’s grip where, for right-handed players, you use classical grip on the left hand and piper’s on the right hand.
You’ll notice that my own fingers extend over the tone holes when I’m playing, see the video below.
If you’re new to the Irish flute you may also need to practice some finger stretching and loosening. Shake out your hands, as if you were trying to warm them up on a cold winter’s day, extend the shaking to the elbows and then the shoulders, it’s a great way to limber up before practice and playing.
There are also a number of finger stretching exercises you can do for the flute, here’s a nice general hand-stretching post online, take a look: Finger, hand & wrist stretches In fact these exercises are great for all musicians and should be performed regularly.
For those of you who are classically trained on a Boehm style flute it’s worth remembering that part of the rationale for the Boehm design was ergonomics and increased ease of play. The simple system flute came before the Boehm and is less ‘user-friendly’ so to speak! It’s up to you to adjust to the flute, and not the reverse so be patient and invest a bit of time in trying to get this right, I promise you the results will be worth it.
I hope the above helps you get to ‘grips’ with the simple system Irish flute however if you require further assistance get in touch with me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. I would also advise searching Irish musician forums such as Chiff & Fipple or The Session where you’ll find extensive advice and discussion about various flute and whistle techniques to help beginners master the Irish flute.
Main image is of piper, Séamus Ennis by Alan Lomax [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons